Thoroughly Modern Mountains
In his influential From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer cites a passage from James R. Ullman’s adventure novel The White Tower in which a Swiss guide compares national attitudes to climbing: “We Swiss-yes, and the English and French and Americans too-we climb mountains for sport. But the Germans, no. What it is they climb for I do not know. Only it is not for sport.”1 The quotation appears in the context of a discussion of the Bergfilm (mountain film), one of the most successful German film genres of the 1920s and 1930s. Writing in exile in the United States after the war, Kracauer saw a very tangible link between the Bergfilme with their apparent fetishization of struggle, vitalism, and heroic endeavor, and the ideal, heroic Volk projected by National Socialism. For Kracauer, the Bergfilme embodied a whole series of proto-fascist tendencies: the regressive nature cult, the power and militaristic implications of the ability to dominate peaks, the ecstatic experience of the anti-rational, the celebration of the athletic body.2 Certainly the German cult of the body and nature is deeply intertwined with the emergence of National Socialism, and the Bergfilm seems to be an important celebration of that cult. The pervasive presence in these films of the young Leni Riefenstahl only makes the connections all the more tangible.